Robert M. Solow
Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow awarded Robert Solow an honorary degree during the University's 155th Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 22, 2011.
Robert Solow: You helped lay the groundwork for much of modern economic theory. Thanks to you, we understand the critical role that technology and innovation play in stimulating economic growth. Your intellectual partnership with your late colleague and dear friend, Paul Samuelson, truly shaped 20th century economics and produced one of the greatest economics departments the world has ever known. Widely admired and respected by your peers, the entire economics profession rejoiced when you were awarded the Nobel Prize. As great a scholar as you are, those who have been fortunate enough to study with you will attest that you are an equally great teacher and mentor. A brilliant and witty writer, you credited your own intellectual awakening to a high school encounter with great literature. Since you have stood as the conscience of your profession, it is appropriate that you are now leading the review of its ethical standards in the wake of the financial collapse. Robert Solow, for your extraordinary contributions to economics as a theorist, teacher, mentor, and colleague, I take great personal pride on behalf of all of your former students in presenting you with the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.
When ROBERT M. SOLOW first proposed many of the ideas that led to his 1987 Nobel Prize in Economics, they were considered revolutionary. But such was their persuasive power that they quickly were widely adopted by the profession. Take his solution to a longstanding problem in the theory of economic growth. Conventional approaches suggested that increases in capital and labor were the only boosters of productivity, yet they accounted for only half of measured growth. Solow showed that technological innovation makes up the difference, and devised a method for measuring it. Now that difference is known as the Solow Residual.
Solow grew up in New York City, and headed off to Harvard on a scholarship at age sixteen. In late 1942, having just turned eighteen, he joined the U.S. Army, serving in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Returning to Harvard after the war, he chose “almost casually,” he says, to take up economics. Studying with Wassily Leontief, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1973, Solow was introduced to empirical research, producing the first set of capital coefficients for the input-output model. He went on to earn a Ph.D., and in 1949 took an appointment in the economics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he spent his entire career, retiring in 1995. He is now an Institute Professor Emeritus.
Hired initially to teach statistics and econometrics, his research veered back to mainstream economics, with a focus on macroeconomics. His office was next door to another former student of Leontief’s, Paul Samuelson, and together they led the post-war development of mainstream economic theory. In addition to his work on technology and economic growth, Solow focused on the sources of unemployment, the evolution of wages, and the determinants of inflation.
In 1961, Solow received the American Economic Association’s John Bates Clark Award, given at the time biennially to the American economist under age forty judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge. (In 1979, Solow became president of the association.) He was also a senior economist on President John F. Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisors from 1961 to 1963.
In addition to teaching at MIT, he was a founding director of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, established in 1974, which pioneered research testing public policy interventions aimed at improving the employment and earning power of disadvantaged groups. He currently chairs the board of the organization. Also in the 1970s, Solow began an eight-year stint on the Boston Federal Reserve Bank’s board of governors, bringing his perspective as an academic economist to the board.
Since leaving MIT, he has continued working. He participated in several McKinsey Global Institute studies on international performance differences in various industries, and as the Robert K. Merton Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, he researched American prosperity in the late 1990s, co-editing the book The Roaring Nineties: Can Full Employment Be Sustained? In 2000 he received the National Medal of Science.
For Solow, the work of an economist is always to discern the inner working of the economy through careful observation and analysis. “You’ve got to fit your model to the world,” he said in an interview in 2002, “not the world to your model.”